Nutrition for Endurance Runners – Written by Paul Jefcoate

Introduction

I recently met up with Jess, the founder of Run Talk Run in case you weren’t sure, to learn more about the Run Talk Run community that allows runners to openly engage in conversations about mental health in a supportive and friendly environment. What quickly became clear was that Jess is doing this to help others, her ambition is to help many more, and she was keen to understand how I might be able to assist.

As none of you will be aware, I am a nutritionist working in public health and it wasn’t until I joined Liverpool John Moores University on an undergraduate degree in Community Nutrition that I realised how effective a good nutrition programme can be for sports and activity. Since graduating from university almost 5 years ago, the glory years are way behind me and I’m starting to appreciate how good nutrition makes me feel both physically and mentally!

I’m grateful for the education I’ve had in the nutritional workings of the human body, knowledge that I can apply in my day to day lifestyle. In respect of this, and in light of the work I carry out with my friends and clients, I feel obliged to share what knowledge I have even if it means it benefits just one person.

So, here goes, this is a slightly science-y insight into the nutritional requirements for runners.

Eating well for physical activity, including running, benefits our performance and endurance, making those jelly legs and lead boots a thing of the past. Optimal nutrition also reduces the risk of injury and illness, and eating well after exercise allows for our body to recover by replenishing depleted energy stores and repairing muscle tissue. More to follow on the principles of nutrition for during and after exercise in a later blog.

In the meantime, let’s focus on what we can do before a run that will help us feel good and perform well as we exercise. The timing of eating and the type of foods we consume are important considerations that can ensure we have enough fuel in the tank to complete the run.

Carbohydrates

The main role of carbohydrates is to provide the body with energy and this is the most important source of fuel for exercise and activity. Our bodies can store carbohydrates in the muscles and liver as glycogen and these stores are used as a source of fuel for the brain and muscles during exercise. It’s important we don’t rely on these stores as fuel for activity because these glycogen stores are limited. Without sufficient carbohydrate and a subsequent over reliance on muscle glycogen we can start to feel tired or lacking in energy, which emphasises the importance of consuming carbohydrates before we begin to exercise.

Quantity and timing of consumption

When to eat and how much we require varys amongst individuals, and therein lies the problem. Finding that right balance between timing, quantities and its relation to performance is a matter of trial and error. In general, pre exercise meals should be consumed around 2-3 hours before exercising and this should consist of a portion of starchy food. Think back to the times where you’ve felt light headed, or you’ve struggled to make the intended distance and reflect on what you had eaten that day. This is the kind of reflective thinking that can incite those eureka moments and identify why fatigue sets in during runs.

Top tips for fuelling a run

Before:

  • Pre exercise meals should contain a portion of starchy foods and should be consumed around 2-3 hours before exercising.
  • A small snack between your pre exercise meal and exercise is useful to keep energy levels high. Ideally consumed 30-60 minutes before you begin.
  • Hydration is important, ensure you remain hydrated throughout the day and accompany your pre exercise meal with water.
  • Ideal breakfast examples would include porridge, wholegrain cereals, wholegrain bagel with fruit conserve, wholegrain toast with nut butter, low fat plain/Greek yoghurt with fruit, topped with oats or muesli containing no added sugar.

Fuelling late afternoon runs:

  • Ideal lunches would include jacket potatoes, wholewheat bread, rolls, wraps with low fat fillings such as tuna, chicken and vegetables. Soups with lentils, pasta and vegetables with a wholewheat roll. Grains including couscous, quinoa and brown rice are also ideal carbohydrate options to be consumed 2-3 hours before a run. Enjoy with lean meat or vegetables.

Fuelling evening runs:

  • Performance would benefit from a portion of wholemeal carbohydrates including pasta, rice, noodles and potatoes with skins left on. Enjoy these with lean protein sources including chicken, turkey, lean beef and pork mince, fish and seafood including salmon and prawns, and enjoy plenty of vegetables.

Summary

For the grand finale I think it’s important to reiterate the point that your energy requirements and desireable feeding times are individual specifications. Be confident in experimenting with your nutrition and how it affects your performance. Remaining mindful of what you’ve previously eaten and at what time this occurred will enable you to reflect on the outcomes of your run.

How did you feel before, during and after your run? Reflect on your nutrition. Does anything need changing? Maybe you ate the right sources but not enough, or you ate too early or too late causing tiredness or discomfort. Perhaps you might experiment with a smaller snack 1 hour before you’re due to train to keep your energy levels topped up.

There is an element of trial and error to establish what works best for you, but I hope this is a good starting point for you to consider. If you would like personal guidance and nutritional support then please feel free to contact me and we can discuss your circumstances in greater detail.

For now, I wish you all the best with your training, and please look out for future blog posts from me on how we can support our nutritional requirements during and after exercise!

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